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Names matter: I had a teacher that called me Frodo all term, because of a Hobbit shirt I wore on the first day. My name’s not Frodo, but at least it was a name.

I just saw Les Miserable, and I noticed that Jean Valjean is the only character with both a first and last name. His, pursuer, Javert, tries always to call him by his number (24601, I think), and is the only character with only a last name . This numbering may remind you of someone else too: there is a man at the market where I shop, with a number tattooed on his arm.

I’ll meet 130 new people in classes in a couple of weeks. To look them each in the eye and learn their names will be my mission, it shows them each cavod, honor, that there is the depth of history, identity to them, an acknowledgement that who I see before me is just the tip of an iceberg in time, space and soul.

The new book and portion of the Torah read this week means names in Hebrew, (shemot), and there’s an iceburg in here.  Running strongly through this drama are words of births and families, and the names of women who honor those tiny, beautiful lives, and so save us all. under circumstances where babies and adults were reduced by blindness of fear and prejudice to expendables, to numbers.

In this drama names are withheld from a baby, (and his mother, father and sister)  until the moment the princess withdraws him from the river and names him Mosheh, Moses. An unnamed man will beat a slave (named brother)  Moses will flee, and marry and name his son stranger there, Gershom.  And then it is God who chooses a new name, at the place where an ordinary bush is burning without being consumed by the fire: Ehye asher ehye – I will be what I will be.

A brief side note about opposites: this fire will inspire the birth of a nation through water.  birth happens in the midst of  death, emancipation from the crucible of slavery, guided by pillars of fire and vapor, led by the son of a slave who emerges from the king’s palace, saved by water which drowns. A male hero emerges entirely fashioned by the strength of wonderfully subversive women who, in their courage choose life.

Names describe, identify, limit and constrict our reality, but they’re crucial.

We are the Namers, it was Adam’s job in the Garden to name animals. We name our children, and name ourselves by our actions. and we are our Names. or we are much more than our names, or sometimes much less than our names. We are named after loved ones … A poem:

Each of Us Has A Name

Each of us has a name
given by God
and given by our parents

Each of us has a name
given by our stature and our smile
and given by what we wear

Each of us has a name
given by the mountains
and given by our walls

Each of us has a name
given by the stars
and given by our neighbors

Each of us has a name
given by our sins
and given by our longing

Each of us has a name
given by our enemies
and given by our love

Each of us has a name
given by our celebrations
and given by our work

Each of us has a name
given by the seasons
and given by our blindness

Each of us has a name
given by the sea
and given by
our death.

~ Zelda ~

This poem honors those names who perished in the Holocaust.

I have a favorite song linked to this Torah portion: Holy Ground by Craig Taubman. It’s not about names, but it’s pretty cool anyhow:


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